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Pablo Neruda's "Ode to My Socks" as Rendered by William Carlos Williams, MD

Dr. William Carlos Williams Demonstrated through His Career That Medicine and Poetry Are "Two Parts of a Whole"

Pablo Neruda and Dr. William Carlos Williams
Pablo Neruda (l) and Dr. William Carlos Williams

The approaching winter compels us to share "Ode to My Socks" by Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, the Chilean master poet of the 20th century. Here, he offers practical advice that certainly will benefit the health and well-being of our community facing the cold temperatures of winter, which soon will bare their sharp teeth.

We are very pleased to present this famous ode translated from the Spanish by William Carlos Williams, MD, a fellow master poet and also a model physician. Like Neruda's other "elemental" odes, the poem first appeared in a daily newspaper.

We should add that Maru Mori, mentioned in the opening line, was the wife of Chilean painter Camilo Mori, and a friend of Neruda. Her gift inspired the poem.

Ode to My Socks [Spanish Text]

Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
that she knitted with her own hands
of a shepherdess,
two soft socks
you'd say they were rabbits.
In them
I stuck my feet
as in
two
jewel cases
woven
with threads of
twilight
and lamb skins.

Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish
made of wool,
two long sharks
of ultramarine blue
shot
with a tress of gold,
two gigantic blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this manner
by
these
celestial
socks.
They were
so beautiful
that for the first time
my feet seemed to me
unacceptable
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
unworthy
of that embroidered
fire,
those luminous
socks.
Nevertheless
I resisted
the acute temptation
to keep them
as schoolboys
keep
fireflies,
or the erudite
collect
sacred documents,
I resisted
the furious impulse
to put them
in a cage
of gold
and to feed them
every day
bird seed
and the pulp of rosey
melon.
Like discoverers
who in the forest
yield the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and with regret
eat it,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled over them
the
beautiful
socks
and
then my shoes.

And this is
the moral of my ode:
twice beautiful
is beauty
and what is good is twice
good
when it is two socks
made of wool
in winter.

Dr. William Carlos Williams practiced pediatrics and obstetrics for over 40 years. He was a physician of immense integrity and dedication, who regarded allegiance to humanism as important as excellence in medical science. He now serves as a role model, and medical students read his poetry and prose (The Doctor Stories) to learn how he labored to get the "right picture" of patients — much like photographers do with cameras; what today we refer to as taking a more holistic approach.

The single most important American poet of the 20th century, Dr. Williams approached translation as an essential act of poetry. His rendering of the ode here shows one of the things he liked so much about Neruda's work, how — as he says in his poem "Tribute to Neruda the Poet Collector of Seashells" — the "changeless beauty of / seashells, like the / sea itself, gave / his lines the variable pitch / which modern verse requires" (By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish).

Read about Pablo Neruda on the Nobel Prize website. See "William Carlos Williams (1883-1963): Physician-Writer and 'Godfather of Avant Garde Poetry,'" published in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, in the Surgical Heritage series.

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